Callers still waiting hours to reach COVID-19 call centre; new call-back link launched

Island Health has launched an online call-back service as one of two major changes to improve its problem-plagued COVID-19 call centre.

The centre — the only way to book a COVID-19 test on the Island — has been so overwhelmed with callers that many people have had to dial for days to book a swab or gargle test.

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“We’re just wanting to create another option for people,” said Victoria Schmid, vice-president of pandemic planning for Island Health, adding the health authority is hring more staff for the centre “as quickly as possible. ”

The link on Island Health’s website allows people to leave their name and number for a call back within 24 hours. “We are working really hard to hit that,” said Schmid. People can also dial the call centre, but after 160 people are in the queue, a recording is triggered telling callers to ring back.

On Tuesday, the health authority also dropped its “assessment function,” where a nurse assesses each person who dials the call centre for a test. Those calls could be lengthy, said Schmid, and in the end, 92 per cent of people who called were referred for a test anyway. The goal is for at least one-third more people to be dealt with in a day.

“We’re just getting people in and we’re registering them and offering them an appointment,” said Schmid. “And if people have further assessment needs, we’re just telling them to go to a walk-in or see a general practitioner.”

After days of calling Island Health’s call centre to book a COVID-19 test without ever reaching a human being, substitute teacher Diana Howell checked the health authority’s website, only to stumble on the call-back sign-up service.

“I was just kind of at the end of my rope and I was thinking: ‘Oh maybe I missed something on the Island Health website’ and they did have that option for the call-back,” said Howell.

Howell, who felt a sore throat and sniffles come on Thursday night, said she had been calling since Sunday. Between herself and husband Paul Smith, they called an estimated 200 times.

Through texting the call-back service, Howell got an ­appointment for a West Shore drive-though test this week. By the time she gets results, she’ll have been off work more than a week and her nine-year old daughter will have missed more than a week of school.

“It’s a little disappointing that people are trying to do the right thing to get a test done and one would hope the process would be a lot smoother, but unfortunately that’s not the case,” said Howell, who worries the long waits will prompt some people to simply go to work or school, “because it’s ridiculous, just ridiculous, to be honest.”

Smith said he was astounded by his wife’s experience. “It’s surprising to me that they’ve had six months to get a system in place to prepare for a surge in cases and this just seems woefully inadequate,” said Smith.

Schmid apologized for callers’ frustrating experiences, but thanked Islanders for being responsible and staying at home while waiting for a test.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

HOW TO CALL FOR TESTING

>>> Anyone with symptoms wanting a COVID-19 test in the Island Health region must first phone its call centre at 1‑844‑901‑8442 or sign up for a call-back at ­islandhealth.ca/covid19testing. Or text “JOIN” and your name to: 1-833-206-5729. The call ­centre and online call-back service are open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Those seeking general COVID information can call the province’s 811 health line or go to the websites of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (bccdc.ca) or Island Health (islandhealth.ca). The Island Health COVID-19 call centre is specifically for those with symptoms seeking a test.

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